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Local health centers hit by budget stalemate
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The state of California has yet again missed its July 1 budget deadline, and as the weeks drag on the state has begun to run out of cash. On Thursday, that lack of funding began to trickle down to local health service providers, as Medi-Cal has run dry, putting local community health centers in a very precarious position.

"This poses a dire, dire threat," said Jason Vega, Central Valley Health Network Governmental Affairs Director in a press conference held Thursday at Modesto's Golden Valley Health Center, which offers 25 locations in such local towns as Ceres, Dos Palos, Newman, Le Grand, Los Banos, Merced, Modesto, Newman, Turlock, Patterson, Planada and Westley.

Medi-Cal and state funding represent 60 percent of the total operating cost of GVHC. As a whole, California's community clinics health centers will lose more than $1,000 a minute and $10 million a week as a result of the budget impasse.

"We've done a good job of putting funds away, and we've only got 60 days and we won't make payroll," said Mike Sullivan, chief executive officer of GVHC. "And we're one of the better off."

GVHC, like many local community health centers, plays a pivotal role in the health care safety net. If centers and community clinics are forced to shut down or reduce services, the rural poor, who are often the biggest clients of such clinics, will be sent to distant, crowded emergency rooms.

"This is a very, very poor area," Sullivan said. "I'm not here to say there are three Californias, but there is one very poor area of California, and that's the Central Valley."

As the state Legislature struggles to find the $15 billion they need to balance the budget this year, school and medical programs are already being targeted as they represent the largest slices of the budget.

"Every year around July 1, this gets pushed on the easiest groups," Sullivan said. "This burden comes on us."

Even if community clinics do manage to survive the weeks or months it could take to pass a budget on only 40 percent of their usual revenue each day, they could be in for even rougher times once state funding returns. Because of planned budget cuts to Medi-Cal reimbursements, many private providers may take their names off the Medi-Cal list, increasing crowding in community clinics while reducing funding.

"Who's going to take care of all those patients?" asked Dr. Sylvia Diego, chief medical officer with the Central Valley Health Network. "Day in and day out we have more knocking on our door. Who they're really hurting are really the fragile."

Many local community clinics will be forced to look to either reducing service or finding loans to stay open, should the state go too long without a budget. In this economic climate, finding those loans could be very difficult for clinics.

"There is a very real possibility of clinics closing down," said Dr. Thom Mahoney, Director of Clinical Affairs, California Primary Care Assoc. Patients. "And who pays for that? Patients pay for that. There is the potential of doing irreparable harm to our safety net providers."

In addition to press conferences held around the state on Thursday in attempts to raise the attention of legislators and find some solution to get the budget passed, Mahoney offered a piece of advice for anyone at home who wants to put an end to the budget stalemate.

"It's really about knowing who your legislators are for your area and calling them up."